Scales have something of a bad reputation in music as being a repetitive and a bit of a slog. Besides the fact that they really don’t have to be, if you vary and maximize your practice, the key to scales is their application. It’s hard to get excited about playing a scale, for sure, but it’s easy to get excited about playing guitar solos, improvising, or writing songs — all of which have their roots in scales.
Close Runner Up: The Major Scale
The major scale deserves a quick mention, due to it being the famous “doh ray me” scale, and the center of all Western Music’s harmony and theory. It gives life to a huge number of famous melodies, is instantly memorable, and is the reference point by which all other elements of music and music theory are discussed. Certainly, you need to learn it, and play it, at some point. But it is just edged out by a scale that—for guitarists—is simpler, yet seems to contain even more creative possibilities, somehow.
Winner: The Minor Pentatonic Scale
The minor pentatonic scale is simple, memorable, easy to play, and distinctive — all of which makes it the perfect first scale to learn. However, the reason it really comes out on top here is its disproportionately enormous return on investment. Considering it comprises only five notes (hence ‘pent’-atonic), it has birthed the basics of just about every rock/blues riff and solo of all time. Not all, of course, but even so many of those that don’t quite sit within this scale regardless use it with one additional note, or just a slight tweak.
This scale is the heart of rock guitar improvisation and jamming, and the first bunch of solos you learn, compose, or improvise will absolutely be based around the notes on this scale.
How the scale is formed:
The scale is formed of notes I, III, IV, V and VII from the minor scale:
How to use the scale:
- Learn and memorize the scale. Remember it can be played anywhere on the fretboard. If it’s played from fret 5, it’s the A minor pentatonic (because the note on the E string, fret 5, is an A), if it’s played from fret 8, it’s the C minor pentatonic, and so on and so forth.
- Try to improvise basic melodies using only the notes within the scale. The simplest route to doing this is to stop playing simply the scale up and down, back and forth in sequence, but to skip notes, or repeat notes, and create little phrases of melody.
- Work through some very basic guitar riffs, solos, and melodies, noticing how many have their roots firmly in the minor pentatonic scale. Take any nice elements you come across and add them to your bag of tricks so you slowly build up an arsenal of phrases and licks you can call upon when playing, especially when soloing or improvising.
- As you progress and learn various lead guitar techniques (such as the hammer on, pull off, slide, bend, and vibrato), remember to factor these into your playing. These small changes will elevate your soloing and improvisation immediately to more professional heights, by providing aural interest and a more engaging, assured sound.